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3.6 Comprehending policy meshing and entrainment

1. Policy cycles

In order to be able to base some appropriate new form of socio-economic organization on a new pattern of insights, it is clearly necessary that collective comprehension of that pattern should persist in a coherent manner over a period of time. The length of time required must clearly be at least of the same order as that of any major cycle of processes through which the well-being of that new mode is ensured. By a major cycle is meant one which encompasses the shifts between the alternative paradigms or modes of operation required to correct for deviations or the accumulation of characteristics impeding the long-term development of that society.

Since most policy-making is tied to electoral cycles of from 1 to 7 years, and several electoral cycles may be required to compensate for each others excesses, it is probable that collective comprehension of such larger cycles is inadequate, to the extent that it exists at all.

2. Vehicle traffic as a metaphor

It is interesting that the dimensions of this collective comprehension problem of time cycles can be beautifully illustrated by a metaphor whose features are very familiar to all, namely the circulation of traffic. The movement of traffic of different kinds, of different densities, at different speeds and with different directions, especially in an urban environment, is (self-) regulated by a range of techniques.

These include:

  • basic road rules (driving on right or left);
  • prohibited actions (no entry, speed limit, no stopping, no waiting, no parking);
  • required actions (stop, keep left, yield, turn right);
  • limited access (no cyclists); and
  • special warnings (dangerous crossing, etc).
Whilst drivers may bend and break such rules occasionally, they recognize the wisdom of them in most situations -- for their own continued survival, if not for that of others.

To improve traffic flow, traffic signals may be used permitting an orderly alternation in direction of movement (e.g. from the right or from the left). These may be phased in various ways to improve flow in an area (e.g. the green phasing for a group of vehicles moving at constant speed along a route through the area). Area traffic control responsive to a range of traffic conditions may optimize flows by comparing current conditions to models based on past experience. Traffic of different types may also be segregated: pedestrians from vehicles, local from long-distance (e.g. on expressways with merging lanes and cloverleaf junctions).

3. Collective comprehension span

Movement of traffic under such conditions is only possible because the collective comprehension span exceeds that of:

  • traffic signal cycles;
  • waiting periods at stop or give-way junctions;
  • delays associated with travelling in peak period traffic;
  • delays associated with multiple accidents and road blockages.
People are prepared to tolerate the priority given to others, knowing that priority will be given to the group of vehicles with which they are currently associated in accordance with the priority of traffic flows at that point. They are prepared to tolerate traffic moving in directions other than their own, knowing that at some time they may find it necessary to be moving in those same directions, perhaps on a return journey.

However, if the time span comprehended was reduced to the same order as that of the traffic signal cycles or less, a very different situation would prevail. A stoplight would be perceived as an unjust deprivation of rights. The traffic able to move at that time would be perceived as having acquired undue privileges, since it is composed of vehicles moving in other (and therefore irrelevant) directions, and especially if relatively few vehicles were travelling in that direction at that time. The sense of pattern would be completely lost. Only the direction of one's current journey would be of any significance. Traffic moving in the opposite direction could quite legitimately be forbidden.

4. Social implications

If the appropriate mode of socio-economic organization is to be comprehended in this light, the implication from the earlier arguments is that it is highly probable that the prevailing collective comprehension span is less than that of the cycles by which that mode is to be sustained. Constituencies advocating opposing policies are perceived like streams of traffic coming "from the right" or "from the left" or even "from the opposite direction". Since the pattern of the appropriate mode cannot be comprehended in its entirety, such alternative policies can only be considered as a misguided or dangerous use of resources. The possibility that implementation of the policy favoured by one's group might be temporarily interrupted, to ease the build up in the pressure in favour of another, could only be considered unreasonable.

5. Enriching the interplay of priorities

Use of this metaphor is not intended as a means of rendering existing injustices acceptable. Even in terms of this metaphor, there are some groups that have been waiting at a traffic junction a very long time for a green light to give them some degree of priority. The purpose of the metaphor is to provide a more accessible framework within which the interplay of priorities can be discussed. When should the flow of traffic on an expressway be interrupted to allow traffic from a side road to cross or enter the mainstream? Where is it appropriate to construct merging lane ("cloverleaf") junctions or underpasses? Where is it more appropriate for low frequency traffic to detour to an entry/crossover point? What are the major routes on the road map?

7. Phasing progress

The metaphor indicates a way of thinking about how the progress of groups of different kinds, developing at different rates in complex social environments, could order their conflicting policies with minimal mutual interference. Some form of cycle of signals might be used to enable groups with conflicting policies to progress during alternate periods. Actions of groups of different types may be segregated. The progress of groups with conflicting but interrelated policies may be facilitated by devising means for such policies to filter through each other (as at traffic "roundabouts") rather than cut across each other.

8. Limitations of present thinking

The prevailing approach may be seen, in the light of this metaphor, as one in which groups promoting different policies are given start/stop priority over each other in succession, in order to express their viewpoints. In the case of the alternation of political parties in power, an election is a process through which a decision is taken on the traffic signals. But in general, present policy control in this metaphor can be compared to a procession (or "progress") in one direction with the support of security forces which ensure that all access roads be blocked off and all opposing traffic suppressed. When the procession has petered out, another such "convoy" may be organized, by another coalition of forces, in another direction to cater for the traffic stream blocked by the first. This corresponds to a very primitive traffic control approach. It takes no account of the sophisticated blend of control and delegation of responsibility to drivers which is characteristic of modern traffic patterns.